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African Americans, President Woodrow Wilson, and the First World War (1914-1918)

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Social Studies +3 Age Levels Middle School (13 to 15 years old), High School (16 to 18 years old), Adults

On April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked the United States Congress for a declaration of war against Germany. The United States could no longer sustain anti-war policies and rhetoric, diplomatic neutrality, and an isolationist outlook as it had since 1914. A combination of elements such as unrestricted German submarine warfare, rumored invasions, horrific new tactics of fighting, and technologies of war contributed to Wilson’s request. Congress granted President Wilson’s request, and on April 6, 1917, the United States officially entered the Great War*.  Wilson claimed that the world would “be made safe for democracy.”

As the United States was preparing to protect freedom and equality internationally, African Americans were struggling against racism in the forms of economic oppression, violence, and legal as well as social inequality.  Though citizenship and male suffrage had been endowed to African Americans by the Fourteenth (1868) and Fifteenth (1870) Amendments, many African Americans found it dangerous, if not deadly, to practice the fruits of American democracy to which they were entitled. Despite the magnitude and horrors of war, the African American community believed that fighting in the Great War, demonstrating their patriotism, loyalty, and bravery would show white Americans they deserved equality and civil rights.

This Learning Lab explores the interwoven legacy of President Woodrow Wilson and African Americans before, during, and immediately after the Great War (1914-1918). 

*The Great War, the First World War, and World War I will be used interchangeably to name the war.

Keywords: NMAAHC, NMAAHC Education, African American, World War One, Great War, First World War, soldier, war, Woodrow Wilson, president, Jim Crow, primary sources, stories

Discussion Questions

NMAAHC Education

Woodrow Wilson

National Portrait Gallery

William Monroe Trotter, circa 1915

Boston (MA) City Council, Exercises at the Dedication of the Statue of Wendell Phillips, July 5, 1915 (Boston: City of Boston, 1915), 11.

Watch your step. (1914)

Library of Congress

Pamphlet for the Ku Klux Klan written by Colonel William Joseph Simmons

National Museum of African American History and Culture

No Man's Land, Near Thiaucourt

National Museum of American History

Corner of battlefield, Haelen

Library of Congress

Showing contrast in mask used for man and horse

National Museum of American History

I Want You for U.S. Army

Smithsonian American Art Museum

World War I enlisted soldier's tunic and cigarette holder

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Photographic postcard of Lawrence McVey in uniform

National Museum of African American History and Culture

French Croix de Guerre medal received by Lawrence McVey

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Returning Home and Legacy

NMAAHC Education

Colored Soldiers who covered themselves with glory in France, returning to US

National Museum of African American History and Culture

True Sons of Freedom

Library of Congress

"Race War in Washington"

Carter G. Woodson